Listening #128

Writing is easy. See? I just did it. Three whole sentences, written between breakfast and lunch. (I had to pause and think about one of them.) Payday, here I come.

What isn't easy is performing some of the tasks that make writing worth reading. My least favorite of those is receiving equipment samples that are too large or too heavy for UPS and FedEx: Few things strike greater fear in my heart than having a tractor-trailer driver call me from his cell phone, saying he's blocking traffic at the bottom of my driveway and wants to know how to reach my house—and, by the way, his liftgate is broken and he's not responsible for getting this 300-lb crate out of the truck and through my front door. (My narrow, hilly, 1000'-long driveway and its overhanging cherry trees seemed charming when I bought the place; little did I dream.) Yet it's undeniably true that big, heavy things can be a great deal of fun to read about, so I carry on.

Other difficult tasks are comparatively pleasant. I don't really mind setting up loudspeakers—even the ones I can scarcely move on my own—if only because the rewards of getting things right are so gratifying. And, more than almost anything else, I do enjoy installing and setting up tonearms, especially when the project involves making a tonearm board or plinth on my own.

So it was this past spring, when I was given the opportunity to write about the Ikeda IT-407 tonearm ($6500), which was designed and built by the 84-year-old Isamu Ikeda. Way back in 1967, Ikeda-san founded Fidelity Research, a celebrated Japanese firm that left its mark on the world of phonography with its FR-64 series of tonearms and FR-1 and MC-202 cartridges. (One could say that Isamu Ikeda has left another, more personal mark, inasmuch as many of Japan's well-known cartridge builders have served him as apprentices.) In 1985, as the first shadows of the passing Compact Disc were cast upon the marketplace, the plug was pulled on Fidelity Research—yet Ikeda-san wasn't idle for long: By 1986 he had founded Ikeda Sound Labs, specializing in low-compliance moving-coil cartridges and high-mass, transcription-length tonearms. Which are wonderful things, indeed.

My recent Ikeda experience was occasioned by a change in distribution: After 27 years of patchy representation in the US, the products of Ikeda Sound Labs are now imported by Beauty of Sound, located just 90 minutes from me, in the Albany suburb of East Greenbush, New York. A well-traveled sample of the IT-407—an interesting model number for a tonearm with an effective length of 307mm—reached me while the snow was still on the ground.

Unpacking
The Ikeda tonearm was a delight from the start—defined, for my purposes, as the morning when I made for it a simple armboard of alder wood. (I wanted to use the Ikeda on my 1961 Thorens TD 124, but lacked a spare blank board with the extra real estate required for a 12" arm.) With the newly made board in place on my Thorens, I plotted the recommended spindle-to-pivot distance of 295mm, then returned to my workshop to drill the required mounting hole—which, at 31mm, is considerably larger than most such things.

The very substantial IT-407 would seem to demand no less: Its columnar support pillar is fully 25mm in diameter, and while the Ikeda's 10mm-diameter armtube isn't any thicker than average, it is made of stainless steel instead of the far more common aluminum. With its 35gm moving mass and a counterweight that proved too heavy for my 8.5gm Yamamoto ebony headshell—the latter used with any cartridge on hand—this is clearly not a tonearm for owners of high-compliance phono pickups.

The Ikeda is remarkable for more than just mass: Although its physical design appears solidly smooth and pleasantly unfussy, the arm offers more than usual in the way of setup and adjustment features: spring-actuated dynamic tracking force, which is calibrated and easily set for downforces of up to 5gm; a calibrated and adjustable falling-weight antiskating mechanism; an adjustable lift-lower platform, mated with Ikeda's trademark spherical cueing knob; a beautifully made headshell (of appropriate mass) that's easily adjusted for overhang, offset angle, and, especially, azimuth; and, calibrated for vertical tracking angle (VTA), an arm pillar whose relative height is reasonably easy to adjust.

713listen.tonearm.jpg

That ease of adjustment is due in no small part to the IT-407's very solid mounting collet, which, in the manner of the EMT 997 and one or two other tonearms of my acquaintance, clinches the arm pillar with two locking screws instead of one. Moreover, said screws are hefty nylon-tipped things, with large knurled knobs for those of us who don't always have an Allen wrench within reach of one hand at the moment we're grasping a perfectly adjusted arm pillar with the other. As with Fidelity Research arms of yore, the locking nut that holds the arm-mount collet in place from underneath the board is machined with two diametrically opposed holes; these accept a pair of metal studs that, when used together, serve as a very effective wrench. (Naim Audio—whose founder, the late Julian Vereker, was a Fidelity Research fan—took a similar approach in the mounting scheme for their Aro tonearm.)

Thus did I fasten my review sample of the IT-407 to its newly made board, the latter overhanging the entire right-hand side of my Thorens. I re-leveled the turntable to compensate for the change in weight distribution, then added the cartridge and headshell at one end of the armtube and the remarkably heavy counterweight at the other. With the cartridge near the middle of its overhang-adjustment range and the counterweight's locking screw left just a bit loose—with Ikeda's blessing, per their good installation manual—I set the tracking-force control to "0" and adjusted the counterweight until the arm was perfectly balanced, in which state it was uncommonly stable.

713listen.pins.jpg

Balancing the IT-407 in both horizontal and vertical planes was made easier than usual by a refinement in the arm's antiskating system: a precisely machined thread-and-weight mechanism that is itself mounted to a separate outrigger, the whole of which can be adjusted to sit nearer or farther from the arm pivot, as desired. The axle at the heart of the antiskating system, minus its falling weight, can thus be adjusted to achieve a neutral setting at which the arm doesn't move in either direction; this not only guarantees the system's accuracy once the calibrated weight is installed, it also makes possible better performance in the lateral plane for the hobbyist whose turntable can't itself be leveled.

With the IT-407 in perfect balance, and with its downforce still set to "0," it was easy to observe the quality of the arm's stainless-steel bearings, which support the vertical pivot axle at both ends. (In its predecessor, the Fidelity Research F-64, only one side was supported.) I gently applied a narrow strip of lightweight paper to the stylus tip, noting from the deflection of the strip how little force was required to displace the arm in either plane—and how readily the arm returned to precisely the same vertical position, every time.

An adjustable spring inside the Ikeda's vertical bearing housing provides the arm's dynamic tracking force: an approach that, in my experience, results in a livelier, more impactful sound than is available from designs where stylus pressure is applied by merely unbalancing the arm, fore to aft. As near as I could tell, the Ikeda's calibration was accurate throughout its range of 0–5gm (my reference Technics strain gauge extends to only 3gm), but the smooth and generously sized adjustment wheel, with detents at every quarter-gram increment above 0.5gm, was an unambiguous delight to use.

Finally, to judge the Ikeda's alignability, I sat down with the Ikeda tonearm, a few cartridges, and my DB System's DB-10 protractor—a $49 accessory that Stephen Mejias has accurately described as Jesus's protractor of choice. As I mentioned earlier, the very low-mass Yamamoto headshell proved incompatible with so massive a tonearm, so I relied on the long version of Ikeda's own metal headshell (footnote 1), which allowed me to achieve perfect Baerwald alignment (footnote 2) with every standard-mount cartridge I tried. In every case, however, I had to increase the offset angle by rotating the cartridge body clockwise by at least a couple of degrees (as viewed from above).

That also held true when I tried fitting the EMT and Ortofon pickup heads in my collection. Noting that the IT-407 is designed for use with G-style as opposed to A-style pickup heads (the former exhibiting a stylus-tip-to-collet distance of 52mm, the latter a more compact 30mm), I supplemented my A-style samples with Ortofon's APJ-1 adapter ($99), a length-enhancing accessory whose most astonishing characteristic may be its obscurity among audiophiles. In every case, a bit more offset would have been required for good alignment, suggesting that the Ikeda arm's geometry is slightly lacking in that regard. Because offset is easy to adjust when setting up a standard-mount cartridge, that's no big deal; it becomes a flaw only with fixed-offset pickup heads. Before choosing an Ikeda for use with one of the latter, the user should have in place some means of adjusting—particularly of increasing—its spindle-to-pivot distance, using a separate arm support, an articulated armboard (à la the LignoLab plinth), or other such approach. (Generally speaking, a smaller degree of offset correlates with a smaller degree of overhang, neither of which can be accomplished without locating the tonearm's pivot point a greater-than-average distance from the record spindle.)

Tracking
Perhaps more than most tonearms, the Ikeda IT-407 is one of those hi-fi products that compels its user to just sit back and gaze at the thing: a beautifully rounded construction of polished chrome and stainless steel that appears to be at once both new and old. Isamu Ikeda suggests that its generous curves are "not only for aesthetics: The lack of any sharp edges is employed so that no vibrations or resonances can be stored in the arm."



Footnote 1: Ikeda appears to have offered, until recently, two different headshells: one that's chromed to match the rest of the tonearm but is curiously short—made, I believe, to suit cartridges whose stylus tips are spaced way ahead of their mounting bolts; and one long enough to suit a far greater number of cartridges, but that's finished in gloss black. I used the latter; Ikeda Sound Labs recently stated that it will now be offered as standard in the same nice chrome finish as the former.

Footnote 2: See Keith Howard's article on tonearm geometry.

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corrective_unconscious's picture
Phew!

There went several centuries of writers kvetching about how hard writing is. I always suspected they were exaggerating.

Of course, you still have those writers whose work sounds labored, whether the sentences pour forth easily or do not.

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